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Saturday, 10 November 2012

Sal Khan’s program: no quick fix

Sal Khan is a young, enthusiastic technophile and educator.  He hopes to solve the problem of poor performance in Math courses that plagues the U.S. public school system with his comprehensive, computer centered teaching program for mathematics.  It allows students to work at their own rate, moving from math topic to math topic in a sequential manner that takes into account individual learning styles and interest levels.  Khan believes that this approach is going to revolutionize public education; Bill Gates agrees, calling Khan’s vision the future of education. Unfortunately, both Khan and Gates have misdiagnosed the problem and, while the program will benefit many students, the students who are the source of the school system’s poor performance will not be helped.
In his promotional video, Khan declares that his program “flips the classroom” because, instead of teachers presenting new math concepts at school to an entire class, students tackle new material alone at home on their computers.  They then come to school to do the exercises that demonstrate how well they have grasped the new concepts.  This, Khan explains, allows teachers to provide individualized classroom help to students as they work their way through their exercises.
Unfortunately, that key aspect of Khan’s program is its Achilles’ heel. Many students in the public system will simply not bother to learn the new concepts at home.  No matter how clever the software or entertaining the program, the work that Mr. Khan imagines will be eagerly completed by students will often simply not be done.  Of course, students who love math, or at least want to succeed in math, will love Khan’s program. But they aren’t the students who are causing the panic in public education.  They aren’t the thousands who cannot achieve acceptable marks on standardized tests, who perform way below grade level, and who swell the ranks of the numerically challenged. Those students will arrive in class passively expecting to be taught, exerting as little effort as possible; or will be so disinterested that learning new math concepts will be impossible.
The problem, oddly enough, is one of metaphor, not mathematics.
The Khans, the Gateses, the eager education reformers all share characteristics that made them successful. They are all focussed and highly intelligent; they were all good in school and eager learners. They share the metaphorical framework that taught them to value hard work, sacrifice, optimism and the postponement of gratification.  They believe that like them all students deep down love learning, and that therefore, if students aren’t learning, it’s the fault of the system.  Their many successes in life make them sure that if they could control all the elements of public education: the delivery systems (computers, smart boards, software), the educational environment and the teachers’ training and methodology, then student performance would reach new heights. Their perception of the problem is empirical; the solution behaviourist.  Let us analyze, then control the educational input, they say, and we can predict the outcomes. 
Unfortunately, the students in need of help have never lived in the world the Gateses and Khans live in. The metaphorical framework that makes up their world view and perception of themselves is far different. They have not received satisfaction from accomplishment; they have not seen the positive results of hard work, or felt confidence in the future. Their concept of a role model does not include any engineers, architects, visual artists or doctors. Like many young people, their peers exert more influence on them than adults, but their peers are motivated and inspired by the metaphors generated by the media, corporate interests, popular culture and the mythology of their own particular environment.  The rewards of a formal education are vague and remote. Gratification, if it is to occur at all, must be immediate and concrete; otherwise it may be lost.  Therefore any education system that wants them to learn the abstractions of mathematics is so outside their experience or interest that it seems ludicrous. 
That is why experienced educators are always concerned about the environment in which students find themselves.  That is why they say that social and economic factors are so important to education and why they are always sceptical of the latest quick fix program.  Until educational reform seriously takes into account the effect of the metaphorical world that students construct in and around themselves, the reforms will fail.  Students have to want to do the school work.  Neither Sal Khan nor even Bill Gates can make them.

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